What Critiques of 'Smug Liberals' Miss

Attacking half the country with condescending vitriol has been going on for decades in movement conservatism, too.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Last April, Emmett Rensin warned in Vox about what he called “the smug style in American liberalism.” Its adherents believe that American life is not divided by moral or policy differences, “but by the failure of half the country to know what's good for them.” He worried that an ideology responsible for a lot of good for a century was now indulging in the posture of a “condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason.”

That September, Ross Douthat published a prescient column where he observed that cultural arenas that have long been liberal––comedy, college campuses, awards shows––were being prodded or dragged to the left, and that the left’s cultural gains would cause it political problems. For instance, “there’s a growing constituency for whom right-wing ideas are so alien or triggering, left-wing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise,” he offered, even as “the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.”

Then that cultural rebellion helped to elect a president.

As Max Read notes in New York’s issue on reactionaries, “There is power in transgression—power that liberals lost when they won the culture war and began to set the boundaries of social and cultural acceptability. The new new right may never swallow the American cultural mainstream, especially so long as social-justice and socialist movements on the left challenge its rise, but that doesn’t mean the country isn’t going to be wrestling with its influence, and its bomb-throwers, for a generation.”

There is a lot of truth to those articles; to Scott Alexander’s recent observations about “neutral” and conservative institutions; to Caitlin Flanagan’s argument that sneering TV comedians have contributed to liberal smugness and a backlash from alienated conservatives; and to David French’s concurrence this week in National Review, where he pans shows like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

As he put it, “we are all familiar with the style.”

Disagreeing is difficult given his description. “The basic theme is always the same,” he wrote. “Look at how corrupt, evil, and stupid our opponents are, look how obviously correct we are, and laugh at my marvelous and clever explanatory talent.”

But wait a minute. There is something missing in these critiques, something I would expect many liberals to miss, but that attentive conservatives ought to notice. Yes, there is a smug style in liberalism. Yes, it is wrongheaded and politically counterproductive. But this is not just a liberal trait, or even mostly a liberal trait.

This trait is everywhere in U.S. politics and culture. And it is ubiquitous in conservatism.

French comes closest to acknowledging this:

Liberal dogma is rapidly becoming a secular religion, a “faith” that conspicuously omits any requirement that one love his enemies. Christians have long struggled to keep one of Christ’s most difficult commands, but many leftists don’t even try. To many, it’s not even a virtue. Indeed, the same kind of vitriol is a hallmark of the post-religious Right and is part of the explanation for extreme polarization. Post-Christian countries eschew Christian values, including the very values that can and should prevent even the most ardent activists from becoming arrogant . . . and intolerant.

But note that smug vitriol and contempt for political and ideological opponents is not a new development that just started manifesting on a post-Christian right, after George W. Bush and Mitt Romney gave way to Donald J. Trump. Smug vitriol is in fact an old standby that has been part of movement conservatism’s core for decades.

To grow up in Orange County, California, as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, was to encounter many conservatives who resented the idea that somewhere, there might be smug liberals sneering at them––yet where one constantly heard liberals disparaged as malign idiots in a milieu where similar language about an ethnic minority was unthinkable. Many of these otherwise lovely conservatives sat in disdainful judgment of liberals far more often than the typical liberal even thought about anyone like them. But they truly felt they were the objects of the condescending vitriol. In a weird way, they had internalized a view of themselves as cultural inferiors.

This was so even though little then was as confrontational as Full Frontal or Last Week Tonight. The editorial board of the Los Angeles Times and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather was enough to make them upset. And yet, or maybe in reaction, they patronized people far more smug and vitriolic than anything the MSM broadcast.

Was any longtime political commentator more smug than Bill O’Reilly, king of TV conservatives starting in 1996? Who more fully embodies the ethos, “our opponents are corrupt, evil, and stupid, while we are obviously correct,” than Rush Limbaugh?

Later, Andrew Breitbart’s contempt for a left that he regarded as “totalitarian” was channeled through a posture that aptly became the title of his book: Righteous Indignation.

Or consider Ann Coulter, who has reemerged as a voice that young conservatives on college campuses are intentionally associating themselves with. Prior to her most recent book, Adios, America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole, she authored bestsellers including, Never Trust a Liberal Over 3; the un-subtlely demonizing Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America; If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans; and How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).

Sean Hannity titles include “Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism” and “Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism.”

Neither Erick Erickson (who has apologized for the vitriol that characterized his early punditry) nor Sarah Palin are “post-Christian.” But both rose to prominence on the right––including the most Christian corners of the conservative movement––spewing disdain and vitriol as potent as any comedic entertainer on late night cable. If Palin has ever spoken in favor of loving one’s cultural enemies I have missed it.

Finally, here’s a moment from Mark Levin’s radio show that I transcribed in 2009 as a time capsule:

CALLER: I just wanna say, Obama is a lot smarter than you folks give him credit for. You guys were on a roll, I have to admit, with all those tea parties. Everything was rolling along, the Republicans were gaining momentum. And he managed to change your entire conversational focus.

Levin: My God. He’s so smart. His own party voted against him on Guantanamo Bay. How stupid was that, Cindy? His own party refused to fund the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

CALLER. Yeah but you know he can just move those people over here anyway. He’s already doing it with the one guy.

Levin: Yeah, sure, he can do whatever he wants. Let me ask you a question. Why do you hate this country?

CALLER: No, I love this country.

Levin: (angrily shouting) I SAID WHY DO YOU HATE MY COUNTRY! WHY DO YOU HATE MY CONSTITUTION? WHY DO YOU HATE MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE? You just said it. He can blow off Congress. He can do whatever he wants, right?

CALLER: Well, he seems to, he just moved (inaudible).

Levin: Answer me this, are you a married woman? Yes or no?


Levin: Well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.

None of this is to excuse the smug style of liberalism.

The “smug, vitriolic liberalism” critiques are important and worthy of attention. But the context of the comparable style of conservatism has to inform the conversation.

To wander around America is to discover the happy reality that most liberals and most conservatives are perfectly nice, not particularly smug, and seldom if ever vitriolic. Both camps imagine more disdain existing “on the other side” than actually exists, a perception that has only deepened as social media connects us to conflict. But a bit more introspection from rank-and-file conservatives would also help them to be bothered a bit less by the presence of some smug, vitriolic liberals out there.

Their ideological movement has produced huge amounts of smug, vitriolic content from their most popular entertainers! It is openly disdainful of huge swaths of the country based on nothing but crude ideological stereotypes. Few object, despite bearing no personal animosity toward real-life liberals. So how a couple comedians treat you on TBS  and HBO may reflect a cultural trend––and there is nothing wrong with lamenting it, as I have done––but it is not a reliable guide to liberals generally, a proper focus of mental energy, or a defensible rational for supporting reactionaries.

Or take Hillary Clinton calling you deplorables. She erred in doing so.

But be honest, many of you have called Hillary worse, or laughed as someone else did. And you’d cry political correctness if anyone took as much offense to your words as you did to hers. To bristle overmuch smacks of either hypocrisy or an implicit grant of status to liberals as cultural betters who ought to defer more to a marginalized right.

Today, neither premise is easy to defend.

Liberals should likewise bear the crude insults of Ann Coulter with the same easiness and perspective. Sure, one way to divide the world is between right and left, conservative and liberal. But there are other ways of dividing it up, too. For example, lots of Americans are doing their imperfect best to live together in a diverse country, knowing how difficult that can be and how important it is to succeed. And then there are opportunists who profit by cynically exacerbating our challenge––e.g., pretending to believe liberals are demonic while splitting their time between L.A. and Manhattan. The dearth of respect they engender is their earthly punishment.

Failing to bait anyone is their hell.

There is no malign half of the country, even if lots of good people sometimes feel that way in their darker moments. Reserve disapproval for the handful on the right and left who stoke and exploit our most uncharitable impulses to make their livings. Meanwhile, the rise of social media means everyone is getting yelled at constantly by some ideological other lobbing insults and abuse as though doing so is their vocation. Maybe one day, if we’re lucky, each of us will get our 15 minutes of anonymity. Until then, the haters will hate. But don’t let them change us. Shake it off. Whether in liberalism or conservatism, the smug style is worth less of our attention.